Mosquitoes have long been a pest and parasite of humans. So much so that mosquitoes and their ability to spread infection and disease have altered human history in ways that can still be felt today. One of the most immediate would be the summer session breaks for the US Congress. When Washington D.C. was first decided upon to be the capital of the newly formed United States the summers were a dangerous time to be along the banks of the Potomac. The marshlands and inter-tidal spaces would support huge populations of malaria-infected mosquitoes. One of the only safe ways to avoid being infected with malaria in the 18th and 19th centuries was to simply avoid the area for several weeks when mosquito populations were at their worst.
Although malaria is still a significant hazard to world-wide health (approximately one million people die every year from malaria in Africa alone!!!) its impact in the United States has been much limited from only 200 years ago. Modernization, industrialization and urbanization have definitely cut down on the presence of mosquitoes by reducing or eliminating their breeding sites but it certainly has not eliminated these flying parasites. Conversely, it may open up new habitat for different species of mosquitoes. As we use landfill and bulk heading projects along the coasts to reduce saltwater breeding mosquitoes, mosquitoes that breed in small amounts of fresh or still water, like the house mosquito, will move into the area. In short, while we may mitigate their activity and cut down on their numbers, we will probably never be able to get rid of mosquitoes all together.
While diseases like Malaria and Yellow Fever are the most widely known mosquito borne diseases they very rarely occur in New Jersey. Residents of the garden state need to be concerned primarily with two distinct types of Encephalitis: Eastern Equine Encephalitis and St. Louis Encephalitis.
Eastern Equine Encephalitis or “EEEV” occurs along the eastern seaboard of the US and is prevalent in Southern New Jersey. As the name implies, this disease affects horses but due to the mosquito’s feeding habits it can be passed on to humans very easily and there is generally a reservoir of the pathogen in local bird populations. When passed to humans, symptoms can be dramatic and deadly, causing high fever, body aches, altered personality states and seizures. Due to the nature of the vectors and hosts, EEEV can be found most often in rural areas. Several species of mosquito will pass the EEEV from humans to animals and vice versa. As of now, there is no cure for EEEV, and while death is a possible outcome permanent brain damage can affect any survivors. Eastern Equine Encephalitis is such a devastating disease that it was researched by the US government as a potential biological weapon before the US discontinued its bio-warfare program.
St. Louis Encephalitis is a disease related to EEL and while its symptoms may be less severe it is still a deadly disease for as much as 30% of those infected. While initially St. Louis Encephalitis may present as a flu with fever and aches, in a few short days symptoms can progress to coma, tremors, occasional convulsions and spastic paralysis. Notably, St. Louis Encephalitis is transmitted by the common House Mosquito (Culex pipens) whose close association with humans and variability of habitat causes this disease to spread rapidly and attack urban areas.
In New Jersey, humans are not the only ones to be put in harm’s way by a mosquito bite, even our furry friends are in jeopardy! The Dog Heartworm is spread by infected mosquitoes primarily between dogs and other canids, like foxes or coyotes, as well as ferrets, sea lions or beavers. In areas where dog heartworm is prevalent, it may even infect cats (rarely) or humans (very infrequently). While prevention and treatment is fairly easy for this disease, humans must still bear the burden of the cost for medication and the occasional loss of a pet when the heartworm goes undetected until the terminal stages.
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